Written by Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a mixed bag, artistically speaking. The dark parody of what goes on behind the scenes throughout the story of Hamlet is at times ingenious albeit occasionally tedious.
- There is a prerequisite to this play. The audience should be familiar (the more knowledgeable the better) with Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
- The main characters are intentionally under-developed (and often repetitive!).
- The storyline fixates on pseudo-intellectual rambling.
- The theme fixates on the inevitability on death – and doesn’t add anything new to this well-trod territory.
The Finer Points
- Clever setting.
- Clever dialogue. (Especially the “Question Game” sequence.)
- The “Player” Character. (He steals the show with his insightful observations about art vs. life.)
Background and Setting:
In Shakespeare’s famed tragedy Hamlet, the evil King summons two minor characters named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and bids them to keep an eye on Hamlet. Eventually, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern escort Hamlet on a boat to England. They carry with them a letter from King Claudius; the contents inside dictate that Hamlet should be executed ASAP. However, Hamlet intercepts the letter and transfers the death sentence to the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Many critics and playgoers have wondered if Hamlet (who is normally introspective and slow to violence) crosses into villainous territory by ultimately dooming his "old school friends." Perhaps the twosome knew of the king’s plans. Yet, it seems that in Shakespeare’s play, they are clueless and therefore innocent. And that’s what Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead focuses upon.
It’s often hard to tell the difference between the title characters. Even the King and Queen get them mixed up! Rosencrantz is slightly sillier and less brooding than Guildenstern. But that’s about the depth of their contrast.
Of course, Stoppard designed these protagonists to be flat, static characters who essentially undergo zero transformation. The playwright admits that the work contains “echoes of Waiting for Godot.” That said, it’s not surprising that Stoppard’s tragicomedy offers lots of words and little action. There is a cornucopia of philosophical mumbling, most of it devoid of any meaning – which one could argue is precisely the point.
Still, it seems we could learn just as much about the futility of life and have more fun in the process.
That’s not to say that a good director can’t turn this minimalistic script into a crowd-pleasing giggle-fest. There is much that could be added. The film version (directed by the playwright) features lots of gags and gimmicks that are not to be found in the original stage directions. Rosencrantz makes lots of amusingly anachronistic sound effects and spends much of his time making scientific discoveries that no one else notices.
Despite these criticism, there is still much to admire. Stoppard’s dialogue is sharp and witty – perhaps enough to make the Bard himself proud. As when one experiences Shakespeare’s comedies, it often takes the audience a moment to decode some of lines. The result is a combination of laughter and the sense of self-satisfaction for being smart enough to get the joke!